Many years ago, while I was on a retreat, I heard a story that has haunted me ever since. I no longer remember if it was presented as a true story or one made up to illustrate a point; that really doesn’t matter. The story concerned a group of people partying on a houseboat floating on a river where it was tied up to a dock on the riverbank. The party went on all day and into the night. No one had to get home, so as the evening wore on and everyone grew tired, they were invited to find a place to sleep on board and stay over, which they all did. During the night, unbeknown to anyone, the houseboat became un-tethered from the dock and began to drift gently, quietly down-river. Sometime early in the morning, the sleepers were awakened by the sound of roaring water. To their horror, they found that they were nearing a waterfall and that it was too late to do anything about it. They had all drifted to their doom.
It’s surprising how often Jesus uses apocalyptic language in the gospels. It’s even more surprising to hear it at the beginning of Advent when we’re looking forward to perhaps the happiest of holidays and probably the most loved and beautiful of Christian feasts. The explanation for His so often striking such a somber note, and at this time of year such a discordant note, is twofold: One, Jesus knows how easily we slip into peacefully drifting, and two, He knows how precarious life is and consequently how dangerous drifting can be.
It’s probably harder for us Americans to take the dangers of drifting through life as seriously as others do. After all, we have it pretty good, comparatively speaking. But that very attitude is indicative of a kind of drifting. Are we immune from sickness and death, financial reversals, accidents, betrayal by friends, even family? The precariousness of life is there for all to see and should make us all fervent and constant in prayer. But does it? Not generally. We’re really good at drifting
I’m old enough to remember a time when Sundays in this country were set aside for church-going and being together as a family. There were no stores open, so you couldn’t go shopping. It was unthinkable that you’d have Little League or soccer games on Sunday morning. Those days are gone. The change was deemed good for the economy. Has it been good for the faith and family? We just drifted from one position to another without a thought about the consequences.
As a Catholic people we’ve drifted from baptizing our children as soon after birth as possible to waiting months, sometimes a year or more to do so. We’ve gone from naming our kids after saints to naming them after celebrities, and from never missing Mass to missing Mass due to the slightest inconvenience. I’m on vacation: no time for Mass; no big deal. When I was a kid, growing up Protestant, we marveled that Catholics didn’t take summers off from church-going. Well, congratulations; we’ve caught up to the Protestants.
None of these things seemed to be the end of the world. None of them makes us terrible people. But each of these steps bespeaks a change in us and fosters further change, and it’s not change in the direction of deeper faith, more fervent prayer, more faithful witness to Jesus Christ and His way, truth, and life.
“Beware,” says Jesus, “that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life and that day catch you by surprise like a trap . . . Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent.”
Life is good. No one knows that better than Jesus, the Author of life, who said He came that we might have life to the full and that our joy might be complete. But life is also precarious, and Jesus knows that too. It’s not to be taken lightly. We can’t afford to drift, to just go with the flow; not in our relationships, not in our work, not in our recreation, not in our prayer and worship, not in our life; not unless we don’t mind going over the falls.
Advent, it’s been said, is among other things a wake-up call. Time to wake up!
I can still remember the first time Frank preached one of my Masses here at Our Lady of the Snow. I had just come from ten years of working in the seminary where every day a different faculty member said Mass and preached. These were very smart men, and their homilies showed it. One of my jobs while at the seminary was teaching a course on spirituality to deacon candidates. I usually felt sorry for them. They had been out of school for years; many of them blue collar workers who were good guys but not what you might call academically inclined. So I tried to go easy on them. I knew how much reading and writing they had to do for their other courses.
I never had Frank in class—he was ordained before my time at the seminary—but when I heard him preach for the first time, I thought, “This guy could teach in the seminary.” His homilies were always learned, well thought out, well organized, articulate and clear. If you listened to Frank Hartmann, you learned something every time.
In pretty short order, I discovered that it wasn’t just Frank’s homilies that could teach you something, and this was common knowledge. People would come up to me and say, “You should ask Frank Hartmann about that.” He knew a lot about a lot of things.
Frank served on the finance committee when I came to Our Lady of the Snow, and I could always count on him for astute, wise counsel, not to mention penetrating questions I couldn’t always answer. If there was some building issue I had to deal with, there was a pretty good chance that Frank knew the history of the issue and an even better chance that he could give some good direction on how to deal with it. Frank was a very smart man.
But you know, nobody ever got to heaven for being smart. If they were smart and got to heaven it was because of how they used their intelligence and how much they gave of themselves. Frank scored high on both counts. He served in the Navy in Vietnam. Years later that would come back to bite him when his health began to fail and it was determined by the Veterans Administration that Frank’s illnesses were the result of his contact with Agent Orange during the war. He worked for years as an insurance adjuster, and days after 9/11 was at ground zero assessing the damage and settling claims. He paid a price for that too.
Frank was ordained a deacon in 1996 and served not only here at Our Lady of the Snow but also at St. Philip Neri Parish in Fort Mill, SC where he and Annabelle spent the winter months. He was married to Annabelle for forty years. I’m sure he’s smiling down on her now and so grateful for her loyalty and the loving care she gave him, especially in his last illness.
He’ll be missed by her, his five children, seven grandchildren, five great grandchildren, his friends, colleagues, parishioners on Long Island and South Carolina, and so many others whose lives he touched.
Frank was a big man. He had a big life. He had a big impact on many people in many places. He’ll be fondly remembered here at Our Lady of the Snow, and I for one will be counting on his prayers. God has given him rest from all his illness, all his pain, all his struggles. May He give him the joy of seeing Jesus, whom Frank served long and well in so many ways.
--Homily given on Dec. 2, 2018, Mass of Transferral, by Fr. Charles Fink
Many years ago, when I was a much younger man and had just come home from war, my grandmother, to whom I was very close, said to me, “You’ve changed. You’re not the same as you were.” I didn’t have the impression that she was paying me a compliment. I was changed, more somber, not as cheerful and carefree as I had been, with a tendency to go to the dark side. But it gives me pause that many people I’ve known, who have gone through much worse than I have, seem to have a much brighter vision of life than I do. It gives me pause that in this nation, perhaps the most prosperous in the history of the world, there is such a high incidence of addiction, depression, despondency and worse.
I’m often struck, when watching documentaries about third-world countries or something like Bishop Robert Barron’s superb Catholicism series, at how dirt-poor children playing in an open field with a soccer ball made of animal skin stuffed with cloth or straw are having the time of their lives; and how days after some cataclysmic natural disaster, the poorest of the poor are banding together to patch up their broken lives, happy to be given another chance at life. It almost seems, with exceptions I admit, that the more human beings have, the more they take for granted, and the more it takes to ward off boredom.
Yesterday I attended the funeral of Msgr. Jim McDonald, a priest of more than fifty years in our diocese. A much younger priest, the first of many in our diocese who traced his vocation back to Msgr. McDonald, said that the thing that amazed him most about his beloved mentor was that until the very end, even in sickness, he still had the first fervor of ordination. And those who knew him, as I did, can testify that this was completely accurate. For Msgr. McDonald, the honeymoon never ended, and this was not because he led a charmed, care-free life.
He was pastor of St. John the Evangelist parish in Center Moriches when TWA Flight 800 crashed at Smith’s Point. He rushed to the scene, spending the entire night there, praying and comforting those who were horrified at what they saw. Two of the passengers turned out to be a couple he had married six years before. He said their funeral Mass. Like all priests he saw more than his share of sorrow. It never altered his love of the priesthood. It never altered that first fervor of ordination. It never altered his enormous gratitude to God for giving him the gifts of life and faith and vocation.
From time to time I like to highlight on our bulletin cover some quote or other of the inimitable G.K. Chesterton. He was a great genius and a great twentieth century Catholic convert. I think what really defined him was his obsessive desire to live every moment gratefully. He once wrote, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
And elsewhere: “The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them.”
Or how about this? “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
And one last Chesterton quote ( I expect you’ll all run out after Mass to purchase something of his to read): “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert . . . and grace before I open a book . . . and grace before swimming, walking, playing, dancing, and before I dip the pen in the ink.” And it showed, you know? Almost all he wrote exuded joy and gratitude.
Today is Thanksgiving. Chesterton and Msgr. McDonald would say that everyday should be Thanksgiving. Maybe it came more naturally to them than it does to us, but all that means is that we should work at it a little harder.
Frank Sheed, another great twentieth century Catholic once wrote that God created us because he thought we would like it. Could God have been wrong? Maybe the greatest sickness, the greatest sin, is not to be grateful. God spare us that sickness and that sin.
A very happy and blessed Thanksgiving to you all.
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